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US carries out last federal execution before Trump leaves

January 16, 2021

Donald Trump's presidency has seen its 13th and final federal execution. The conservative-majority Supreme Court paved the way, despite calls for clemency.

Sign outside Terre Haute federal prison where Dustin Higgs was executed
The Department of Justice pushed ahead with executions as coronavirus deaths have continued to skyrocketImage: Michael Conroy/AP Photo/picture alliance

US President Donald Trump's outgoing administration carried out its 13th and final federal execution in the early hours of Saturday morning. No other presidency has executed so many people in 120 years.

The last time the US government carried out federal executions during a presidential transition period was in the late 1800s. This was also the last time that federal executions reached double digits.

Trump, an keen supporter of the death penalty, resumed the practice after a 17-year hiatus in 2020. Since then, more people have been executed than in the previous 56 years combined.

The last person to be put to death by the Trump administration was 48-year-old Dustin Higgs. His lawyer, Shawn Nolan, condemned his execution, which was carried out at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

"The government completed its unprecedented slaughter of 13 human beings tonight by killing Dustin Higgs, a Black man who never killed anyone, on Martin Luther King's birthday,'' Nolan said in a statement.

"There was no reason to kill him, particularly during the pandemic and when he, himself, was sick with COVID that he contracted because of these irresponsible, super-spreader executions.''

President-elect Joe Biden, who will move into the White House on Wednesday, has expressed his intention to end federal executions.

Supreme Court approves lethal injection

Higgs was found guilty 2000 of ordering the murder of three women. He maintained his innocence up until his final statement, saying: "I'd like to say I am an innocent man, I did not order the murders."

His lawyers called the sentence "arbitrary and inequitable," considering that the man who pulled the trigger was spared the death sentence.

A court had ordered a stay of execution for Higgs, as he had suffered from damaged lungs as a result of a coronavirus infection which would cause increased suffering from the lethal injection.

The Department of Justice appealed the stay and won. The appeal ended in the Supreme Court — packed with conservative nominees under Trump's watch — which again gave the green light.

Higgs was put to death five hours later.

Democrats push to end death penalty

On Wednesday the Justice Department executed Lisa Montgomery — the first woman to be executed at the federal level in almost 70 years.

States have postponed executions during the pandemic to avoid spreading coronavirus.

Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill on Monday to end the federal death penalty. As the party now controls both the Senate and the House of Representatives, it has a good chance of becoming legislation.

"This is not justice," wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a dissenting note to Friday's decision. "After waiting almost two decades to resume federal executions, the Government should have proceeded with some measure of restraint to ensure it did so lawfully."

ab/rc (Reuters, AFP, AP)